I am always amused by titles like this one until I dive into the topic. Learning to love well takes a lifetime of dedication to the art. Most posts on the topic of love have a long to-do list. And while I agree that love does indeed manifest as action, those lists don’t prove generally helpful to me. After all, my husband and each of my children are so different that what looks like love to one feels unloving to another.
Neither am I here to recount the five love languages, as helpful as they can be. I think that to love well, basic guidelines read more like emotional maturity than a how-to list. I thought I was good at loving for a long time, and could not figure out why all my efforts seemed to fail. As it turned out, I did not love my abusive first husband well. I think the relationship would have ended far earlier if I had. My fear kept me prisoner long after my love had disappeared.
To love well comes from a place of strength and requires fearlessness. Living with my first husband who had Narcissistic Personality disorder made me weak and afraid. And yet God did shore up my weakness. He gave me the strength to love truly, beginning with telling the truth about who I was and what I suffered.
You see, I always thought love required a kind of masochistic sacrifice in which I gave all and was supposed to be happy in return for nothing. That was unconditional love, was it not? But no, unconditional love does not require denial or dishonesty. When we lie about who we are or cover up how we feel for the sake of the other, we have stopped loving. We have erected a dummy in place of our real selves, and no one has a real relationship with a straw man.
With every lie, we take a step away from the other person and those lies must be uprooted in order for real relationship to take place. So here is my list of what loving well requires. I fully admit that it is not full of practical or cheery instructions such as love notes and fresh coffee in the morning, though those are wonderful. Love is at once action and deeper than action. Love is a state of being that is ultimately inclusive, ultimately truthful, yet does not press or control. Check out 1 Corinthians 13. Or start with this:
- You tell the truth well. As I grew out of the idea that love means taking all the hits and never complaining, I learned to tell my current and wonderful husband when his actions affected me. By showing him who I am, I am loving him in a way that gives him the opportunity to love me back.
He used to throw his dirty clothes six inches shy of the hamper. For several years I tried all the Christian woman tricks like thanking God I had a husband to pick up after. But that covered up the issue. Nagging did nothing, and I am not comfortable with it anyway. So I decided to be honest.
I told him that my back injury made it painful. Every time I saw his dirty clothes on the floor, I actually felt very lonely inside because I thought maybe I wasn’t worth putting clothes in a hamper. I told him how I felt like a terrible wife when I nagged. I feared his resentment, but on bad days coping with chronic back pain, I resented his decision not to just put the clothes where I could easily reach them.
I did not guilt, control, or demand an apology. I wasn’t even angry. I just showed the vulnerable truth. It worked better than years of complaining.
- You can be pleased. As a recovering people pleaser, I was so focused on making others happy that I did not allow them to make me happy in return. One of the greatest gifts one can give another is to simply accept their overtures, their gifts, their affections with great pleasure. Ironically, I learned this from a rather emotionally cold man I dated for a while. He asked me if I could be pleased. I was so convicted. I wasn’t sure I let my children please me.
Since then, I try to just give the pure joy of being thrilled with any genuine attempt to give me love. Why this can be difficult, I am still not sure. But sometimes it is as blessed to receive as it is to give. Think of the last time you genuinely gave someone pleasure. Bet you liked that feeling. Are you denying others that pleasure?
- You listen well. Listening to others can be such a challenge. My daughters could talk non-stop in their teens. Literally hours. But they didn’t expect my whole attention during those times, just my passive presence. Sometimes though, they would need my whole undivided attention. I struggle with this. My mind has a kaleidoscope in it filled with ideas plus I am a tad dissociative.
My husband and my kids (even as adults) need focused active attention regularly. To feel understood gives them the courage to face their lives and more encouragement than the wisest advice.
- You intercede well. If you do not pray for your loved ones, you are leaving their futures to utter chance. Who better than you to bring them before the throne? Do I pray the same prayer every day? No. I know God might not get bored, but I sure do. I have lengthy lists and paragraphs of the burdens I have for each of them. I read them and revise them regularly. And sometimes I just sit in the quiet and invite God to love them with me and to show me how to love them better.
- You are open-handed. Control is based on fear. If you have to manipulate or arrange the lives of your loved ones, you need a reality check. God has never once manipulated or forced me to do anything. Nudged? Yes. Forced? No. Control masquerades as love but is often just the fear of rejection. Let go of the guilt. Let go of the lectures. Let them choose you. Or not.
In the end, letting someone be who they are is an incredible act of faith. It looks like letting go of expectations and labels. But if you want real love, if you want authenticity, you open your hands. Control breeds lying. Do you love your family enough to let them make mistakes? Enough to experience consequences? Lastly, are you safe enough for them to be who they really are around you? If not, time to get your love adjusted.
- You are accepting. If you really love someone, you do not dedicate your life to their improvement. There is already a Holy Spirit and He doesn’t have any positions for Junior Holy Spirits currently open.
Take a look at the people in your life. Do you spend your time wishing they were different? Are you fundamentally disappointed in your children or your husband? This is a painful question, I know. But confusing people with their choices has dire consequences in terms of relationship.
If you find yourself genuinely disappointed in who your husband and children are, it is time for serious repentance. You are rejecting their identity and shaming them. If you are disappointed in their actions, then you may have to release your expectations and forgive. When I see people work through their disappointment in prayer, the atmosphere in their home changes. The presence of true love introduces the presence of true hope.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you see shortcomings. That too is real love. To admit imperfection is to entertain humility. And after all, love is not proud and does not boast. And all those things on this list? Shower yourself with that kind of love too. To love yourself well is to teach your children how to love themselves and others.
These books havesome serious wisdom about how to love. They hit very different points than The Five Love Languages so I highly recommend if you are looking to expand your love vocabulary.